North Korea’s state-run Rodong Sinmun attempted to rally citizens of the communist state for “all-out battle” against the “unprecedented natural disaster” of a heat wave threatening the nation’s crops this week.
“This high-temperature phenomenon is the largest, unprecedented natural disaster, but not an obstacle we cannot overcome,” the state media organ declared, referring to temperatures that “have begun to damage crops including rice and corn in farming areas across the country including the South and North Hwanghae Province have reached 104 degrees,” Rodong Sinmun reported. “Preventing damage from the high temperature and drought in a thorough manner is a very important and imminent task to achieve the goal of grain production and resolve food issues.”
“There is no tomorrow when it comes to the battle against high temperature and drought,” the paper warned. “We should fully mobilize and focus all of the capacities in the battle against the high temperature and drought.”
The agricultural red alert was accompanied by warnings from state television for those who work in chemistry, electricity, and transportation to take “thorough safety measures” against fires and heat damage to their equipment.
In other words, the piteous economy of the North Korean dungeon state cannot handle a drought, but the regime will blame sanctions for deaths from the coming famine and demand relief. As Reuters noted on Thursday, “Similar past warnings in state media have served to drum up foreign assistance and boost domestic unity.”
North Korean defector Kim Young-hee, now an analyst for Korea Finance Corporation in Seoul, contrasted the dire heat wave warnings with dictator Kim Jong-un’s recent “pivot to the economy” in anticipation of greater international trade and investment.
“He has been highlighting his people-loving image and priority on the economy but the reality is he doesn’t have the institutions to take a proper response to heat, other than opening underground shelters,” said Kim Young-hee.
The heat warnings may be exaggerated for either internal political reasons or to send a message to foreign observers, as Reuters cites the work of defectors who carefully study North Korean economic signals to suggest the current year’s harvest has been decent and there were no damaging spring floods. If the heat truly sparks a drought, the effects probably would not become obvious until October.
Temperatures are indisputably high on the Korean Peninsula at the moment, as South Korea has also reported record highs. According to ChannelNews Asia, the wealthier and more advanced South Koreans have experienced “more than three million deaths of livestock and a fivefold increase in deaths from heat-related illnesses, while vegetable prices have doubled due to supplies being affected.” North Koreans are likely to suffer much more from such conditions.
The United Nations found North Korea suffering from its worst drought in almost two decades in 2017. Before that, the 1990s were marked by chronic shortages of food. International humanitarian aid was scaled back during the crisis provoked by North Korea’s illegal nuclear bomb and intercontinental ballistic missile tests. Political tensions also prompted the Kim regime to refuse offers of assistance from the South Korean administration of President Moon Jae-in, who campaigned on developing better relations with the North.
If massive food shortages occur in North Korea, international sanctions will face a test their architects should have known would be coming. The idea behind sanctions is to deprive outlaw regimes of the resources they need for mischief and pressure them into abandoning objectionable courses of action, such as developing nuclear missiles.
Unfortunately, the ruling elite of tyrannical states like North Korea tends to be much better insulated against the effects of sanctions than the general population. Not only are they willing to make their people suffer to maintain funding for military operations and ruling-class luxuries, they have an incentive to do so because the suffering of the lower classes angers humanitarians and prompts them to call for sanctions relief.
During the 2017 North Korean famine mentioned above, it was argued that even the most carefully administered and well-intentioned humanitarian relief serves the interests of dictators by lessening the pain of sanctions; it is difficult to starve a regime while you’re feeding its people.
Analysts believe sanctions have yet to inflict real damage on the North Korean economy, especially the sectors most important to Kim Jong-un. The regime is a bit apprehensive about next year, and it would probably take three years for the pain to become intolerable. If that length of time is necessary to make Pyongyang agree to complete and verifiable denuclearization, the U.S. and its allies had better prepare for a few more famine gut-checks after this one.